In June 2019 I took part in Concern’s Ration Challenge. I spent one week living off the same rations that a Syrian refugee in a refugee camp in Jordan would receive in their ration box. I used the experience to experiment on myself. Using Cronometer to track my intake of macro and micro nutrients during the week, I noted potential deficiencies and observed the effects this had on my body and mind. Of course, I only carried out the experiment for one week; the effects of malnutrition long term on the refugees is far greater.

My rations for the week were:

  • 1920g rice
  • 400g flour
  • 330ml vegetable oil
  • 170g dried red lentils
  • 1 400g tin of chickpeas
  • 1 400g tin of kidney beans
  • 170g lettuce
  • 10 tea bags
  • Salt and spices

A roundup of the challenges:

Lack of calories. This is the obvious concern for most people since the diet only provides around 1500 per day: a fair bit less than the recommended intake for average sized adults. Fortunately (for once!) for me, I am smaller than average and I did not find the quantities an issue. But ration boxes are not means-tested, a refugee who is taller and heavier than me might be feeling very hungry.

Lack of Vegetables. I was allowed a meagre 170 grams of any 1 vegetable over the course of the entire ration challenge week. That worked out as two lettuce leaves per day. Pretty far off the 8 daily portions I recommend my clients! As a result, my intake of many important vitamins and minerals was very low (see below), as well as highly beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals which protect us from disease.

Lack of vitamins & minerals. Many were much lower than usual: particularly vitamins A, C, E, K, potassium, iron and calcium. This didn’t have too much impact on me since it was only for a week; but it could have a major impact on the health of refugees living like this long term. For example, lack of vitamin C could lead to a weakened immune system, infections and scurvy; and deficiency in vitamin A is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness in the third world.

On the other hand, my levels of Magnesium and most of the B vitamins, important in energy production amongst other things, were adequate, thanks mostly to the brown rice. The rules of the challenge stated that brown or white rice could be used; I suspect white may be more available to the refugees meaning they will be lacking in B vitamins and magnesium. When white rice consumption increased in Asia in the late 1800’s, Beriberi disease became common due to deficiencies in thiamine (vitamin B1) which brown rice is an excellent source of. Magnesium is also crucial in helping us to manage stress, and it is depleted more quickly during times of stress. If refugees are given white rice instead of brown their levels are likely to be very low given the hugely stressful situation they find themselves in.

Lack of fats. Although fat is often perceived negatively in our society, it is a hugely important macronutrient. It helps: the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), the maintenance of cell membranes, brain function, hormone production, cellular signalling, energy production, and protection of body organs. During the challenge my fat intake was much lower than usual and particularly of essential fatty acids.

Lack of Protein.  The ideal amount of protein for an adult is thought to be 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight. As it happened, the refugee diet did provide me with about this amount, but once again only because I am smaller than the average adult. Protein deficiency starts at 0.4-0.5 grams per kilo of body weight. It is very unusual to be deficient in protein in the West as virtually all foods contain some amount of protein (the exception being some junk foods), but a larger built refugee could well suffer from lacking in this macronutrient.

Lack of variety. I always tell my clients to have a varied diet. The reason this is important is to ensure a range of nutrients. Brown rice, beans, lentils and chickpeas can all be considered “healthy” foods, but it would be far better to have a broader range of wholegrains and pulses for optimal nutrition. There was also a very noticeable psychological impact of eating the same foods all the time and the impact of this should not be understated. Rice is usually one of my favourite foods but by the end of the week I was utterly sick of the sight of it, and couldn’t bring myself to eat it for several weeks after. If I felt this after just one week, just imagine the long-term impact on someone’s sense of wellbeing.

Lack of ‘treats’. I am not someone who generally eats a lot of sweet treats, but I really felt conscious during the challenge of their absence. OK they may not be exactly essential from a nutritional point of view, but from a wellbeing point of view I do think it is important to have something that feels like a treat now and then. The challenge gave me a new understanding of this.

What I learnt

At the end of the challenge I put together this list of 10 things I learnt:

1. How incredibly lucky I am to have delicious fresh, healthy food to eat in abundance: whatever I want, whenever I want it.

2. Empathy for the millions of people (not just refugees) around the world who don’t have adequate food to eat.

3. How much I need chocolate in my life! And in general how important occasional treats are.

4. Following on from number 3: empathy for my clients. Giving up things you enjoy, whatever the reason, is tough!

5. Increasing wholegrains in my usual diet could be a good thing. I came to this conclusion after noticing that I actually felt surprisingly more energetic than usual during the first few days of the challenge and I put this down to the high levels of B vitamins and magnesium of which brown rice, and other wholegrains are a source.

6. One tea bag easily makes two cups of tea!

7. To be less wasteful. When you’re on rations, every chickpea counts!

8. How to make really nice cinnamon pancakes! I had these during the challenge for ‘dessert’ but they would be far nicer topped with coconut yoghurt and berries.

9. How to make super quick and easy flat breads, this is something I intend to keep up.

10. How generous people can be, thanks to generosity of our sponsors my team made £642 towards Concern’s work with refugees, providing ration packs, medication and education.